Daniel Gonzales’ military career began New Year’s Eve 1947. He was returning home after quitting his job at an automobile dealership in Denver, Colo., when a poster in a window caught his eye.
“I saw Uncle Sam pointing at me, and I made a beeline for the local recruiting office,” said the now 87-year-old veteran. “I walked right in and said, ‘I’d like to join.’”
The Air Force was a natural choice for Gonzales. During World War II, he’d worked as a civil service airplane mechanic at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Hawaii.
“I loved planes, and I always had the dream that I would fly one someday,” he said. “When I was growing up, I used to look up at the sky and watch the planes, and I’d think, ‘Boy, I wish I could fly.’”
As a flight engineer and instructor for the Air Force, his dream came true.
Gonzales logged more than 17,000 flight hours in his 22-year career. He flew combat missions during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, top-secret reconnaissance missions out of Japan for the CIA and cargo missions all over the world.
“I made the right decision,” he said. “I really liked the Air Force, and my wife, Sara, she grew to love it because we got to see and live everywhere.”
Gonzales was seriously injured in 1961 when his crew’s plane crashed in Santiago, Chile, after returning from a humanitarian mission to deliver supplies to earthquake victims.
Gonzales sustained the only injuries, which resulted in chronic back pain and a lifelong disability.
He retired eight years later at the rank of master sergeant.
Retirement didn’t quell Gonzales’ sense of adventure, however. In 1984, he and his wife hit the road in their mobile home and set off on a trip across the country.
During their travels, the couple developed a mutual interest in mineralogy and gemology. They enrolled in courses and learned how to cut, polish and set stones.
Their hobby took them all over the world in search of interesting rocks. They financed their nomadic lifestyle by making jewelry and selling it from their mobile home.
Between 1984 and 2002, the couple collected more than 5,000 pounds of stones.
When Sara Gonzales became too ill to continue traveling and collecting, they moved to Georgia and, ultimately, to Magnolia Manor on the Coast in Richmond Hill.
Sara Gonzales passed away on Veterans Day last year at the age of 87.
“I miss her every day,” said Daniel Gonzales of his wife of 64 years. “We had a rewarding and exciting life with three children, seven grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren to show for it. Sara and I loved our family, and that’s what really matters.”